Sexism & Racism Endemic in Music Videos - New Briefing

8 August 2014

Calvin Harris, DJ Snake, Basement Jaxx and Robin Thicke criticised by women’s groups citing evidence that music videos feed sexism and racism; call for age ratings

Download briefing here

As songs with highly sexualised and racialized music videos including Calvin Harris’ ‘Summer’ and Basement Jaxx’ ‘Never Say Never’ fill the Summer charts, a new briefing on the sexist and racist content of many music videos is published today (8 August) by women’s organisations (1) who are challenging such portrayals of women.


The briefing paper, ‘Pornographic Performances’ (2), reviews available academic research on sexism and racism in music videos and finds the portrayal of women as sex objects, and especially black women as hyper-sexualised ‘endlessly sexually available’ objects, to be endemic in music videos.


It also sites evidence that those who view such videos have been found to have an associated tolerance of racist, sexist and even rape tolerant attitudes.


Pornographic Performances was commissioned by the EVAW Coalition, Imkaan and Object and is being sent to music industry leaders, media regulators and politicians with recommendations for change. Government and regulators are asked to consider urgently the ‘stick’ of introducing compulsory age ratings for music videos, while music industry leaders are asked to take the ‘carrot’ of reviewing the evidence as presented, listening to young women’s views on the content of many music videos, and changing what they choose to commission and portray accordingly.


Pornographic Performances finds that:


Women consistently portrayed as sex objects

Music videos consistently portray very traditional gender roles with men as the ‘characters’ with power and dominance, and women as passive recipients of their ‘gaze’. Frame by frame there is a much greater focus by the camera on women’s body parts, especially those associated with sex, and many of the film conventions of pornography are used. Young women campaigning for change in the music industry highlight that sexism and racism are a problem across all genres of music video, including dance, metal and pop, not only those associated with black artists.


Black women exoticised and hyper-sexualised

Black women are commonly portrayed as hypersexual and with a focus and fascinated gaze on their bottoms, invoking ideas of black women as wild and animalistic. The music industry seems to find it profitable to promote both female and male black artists in a highly sexualised way, whatever their genre of music – racialized tropes are deemed marketable.


Constant sexist-racist videos do real harm

Studies conducted mainly with students find that those who have viewed sexualised music videos in a controlled setting express more sexist attitudes towards women and are more tolerant of sexual harassment. They are more likely to endorse the ‘sexual double standard’ which sees men who have many sexual partners as admirable and women who do so as ‘sluts’. In one study, viewers who watched sexualised videos and who were then asked to comment on an ‘acquaintance rape’ scenario were more likely to make excuses for the perpetrator (3).


To date there has been comparatively little research on racialised sexism in music videos, but one study has found that white men and women who viewed highly sexualised rap music videos reported more negative views of black women (4).


Briefing author Dr Maddy Coy said:


“This paper sets out what is known about music videos – that sexist and racist stereotypes are endemic – and that this can be related to harm in the real world.”


Lia Latchford of Imkaan’s Young Women’s Team said:


“For years young women have been telling us that they are not happy with the representation of women in popular culture, including music videos. We are happy to finally see a briefing which reflects their experiences and the harmful impact of racism and sexism in music videos.


“We believe in women's right to self-expression and freedom of movement. Our concern is how the music industry uses music videos as yet another vehicle to colonise and commodify black women’s bodies.


“We urge the music industry to consider what young women and the evidence are telling them.”


End Violence Against Women Coalition Campaigner Sarah Green said:


“Some forms of media, such as television and film, are well regulated and our society accepts and supports this. Other forms like music videos are getting away with very little scrutiny and as such seem to be competing for who can most degrade and insult women. If the ‘creative’ people who make them won’t stop this, regulators should rein them in and implement age ratings. More than 18,000 people have signed a petition calling for this.”


Betiel Baraki, Campaigns and Outreach Officer at Object said:


“We need to address the pervasive sexual objectification of women and girls in music videos that are often based on racist stereotypes. Women in music videos are all too often portrayed as mere props or sex objects, they are reduced to a sum of body parts, who are often faceless, and who exist for the sexual gratification of men. Sexist and racist depictions of women in music videos undermine our equality.  It is high time we recognise sexist and racist objectification of women as harmful and regulate them as such.”


The EVAW Coalition, Imkaan and Object welcome the forthcoming pilot to voluntarily age-rate online music videos (5) but urge Government and the music industry to go further and make such a system mandatory and apply to all videos. EVAW, Imkaan and Object are recommending:


  • Compulsory age ratings for all music videos, to ensure there is consistency in the regulation of music videos viewed online and on hard copy, as with film
  • Those working in the music industry – including artists, video commissioners, video directors and music company executives – should listen to the views of young women, including especially young black women, and commit to eradicating sexism and racism from their work.
  • The Government should ensure Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) which deals with consent and equality, as well as media literacy, are taught in all schools.


Pornographic Performances is available to download here.


A petition calling for compulsory age ratings, initiated by Ikamara Larasi of Imkaan last year, has more than 18,000 signatures:




Notes to editors:

  1. The End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Object commissioned the paper as part of campaigning work in the Rewind&Reframe project to draw attention and stimulate debate on sexist and racist content in contemporary music videos; Dr Maddy Coy, Deputy Director and Reader at the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit (London Metropolitan University), a recognised international expert on sexual exploitation and gender equality wrote the paper (below)
  2. ‘Pornographic Performances: A Review of Research on Sexualisation and Racism in Music Videos’ by Dr Maddy Coy, July 2014
  3. Burgess & Burpo, 2012 – see Pornographic Performances p7 for full reference
  4. Zillman & Mitrook, 1997 - see Pornographic Performances p8 for full reference
  5. News report on BPI-BBFC voluntary age ratings pilot here

Women’s groups site the following as routine examples of sexist-racist music videos: Summer by Calvin Harris; Turn Down for What by DJ Snake; Blurred Lines and Get Her Back by Robin Thicke; Never Say Never by Basement Jaxx

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